A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 12: People

Posted on September 7, 2017 9:50 pm by | Internal | A Model for Employee Communication

A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 12: People

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders.

Revised Employee Communication Model

The series:
Part 1: Introduction Part 6: Branding
Part 2: Overview Part 7: Channels
Part 3: Alignment Part 8: Culture
Part 4: Listening Part 9: Vision/Mission
Part 5: Consultation Part 10: Values
Part 11: Practices

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. Today, we’ll look at people, the fourth (and most important) ingredient of a company’s culture.

The culture component of the new model for employee communicationEmployees are the most credible company spokespersons. Engaged employees (who represent only 13% of the worldwide and just 30% of the U.S. workforce) give their very best to the organization. They wake up every morning excited to go to work and contribute to the company’s success, even in ways that extend beyond the scope of their jobs.

A few more relevant data points:

  • One study found college students would take 7% less pay to work for companies whose values are aligned with their own and where they feel like they would be a good cultural fit.
  • Departments with cultural alignment experience 30% lower turnover.
  • Employees stick with cultures that appeal to them, even when times get tough; in fact, knowing they have a voice leads them to contribute solutions that could catalyze a turnaround.
  • Most people, when deciding whether to trust a company, look first at how that company treats its people.

If you buy my definition of culture as “the way things get done around here,” then you agree that nothing gets done without people to do it. People, therefore, are the most vital part of a company’s culture. Even a bad culture is a reflection of cultural misfires or poor hiring practices.

How a company treats its employees goes far beyond communication, though communication—both proactive and reactive—plays an important role. In the four stages of an employee’s experience with a company that I cover here, I’ll confine my remarks to the role communications can play. (There are way more than four stages in an employee experience, but I’ll address those when we get to the employee experience element of the new employee communication model in a few weeks.) This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list—it isn’t even a comprehensive list of how employee communication can support the people element of corporate culture.

I hope it serves as a decent review of some of the basics.

Hiring to the culture

Too often, companies hire people based solely on their qualifications and don’t consider whether they’d be a good fit. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) defines “fit” as “the compatibility of an individual with the work environment.” Executive recruiter Katie Bouton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, says it’s “the likelihood that someone will reflect and/or be able to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up your organization.”

SHRM notes that “Research has shown that both person-job and person-organization fit are related to turnover.” Turnover can cost a company in a big way. SHRM says it can add up to between 50-60% of the annual salary of the departing employee (who probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place). Poor fit with the culture, in fact, is the top reason new-hires don’t last.

On the flip side, employees who do fit the culture experienced greater job satisfaction, were likely to stick with the organization, and produced better work, according to an analysis reported in 2005 in Personnel Psychology.

Recruiters, therefore, need to have a good handle on the culture when filling vacancies. This doesn’t mean recruiters need to hire people who are all alike. As Bouton notes in her HBR piece, “The values and attributes that make up an organizational culture can and should be reflected in a richly diverse workforce.” And while some organizations may not rank diversity high on its values list (even if it says they do in the values statement), McKinsey & Company reports that ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, while gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to beat the competition.

Hiring managers also need to grasp the culture and recognize the signs of a bad fit should one get past the recruiter.

Job seekers have some responsibility here, too. The Internet has created enough transparency to make it easy to get a handle on a prospective employer’s culture and skip those that aren’t good fits. People who like a lot of structure probably won’t be happy in a company that prides itself on employee autonomy, for example. A coder who thinks customer service is someone else’s job probably shouldn’t apply to work at Zappos. Reading a company’s vision, mission, and values statements on its website, then testing those statements against what employees say on Glassdoor.com, is usually enough for most people to be able to decide whether to pursue employment there.

Employee communicators, putting on their consultation hats (which I covered in Part 5 of this series), need to work closely with HR to make sure recruiting—from brochures to job descriptions to the way company representatives talk to candidates—reflects the culture and attracts good fits.

A lot of companies run internal referral campaigns that reward staff for referring friends and family. Since the materials explaining these programs to employees are (obviously) employee communications, you employee communicators take the lead in crafting them so they convey the culture and the kinds of people the company is looking for.

Onboarding New Employees

New-hire orientations, like recruiting, often get stale and routine. Most are rote meetings run by bored HR staffers who recite fundamentals (what time does work begin, what day is payday, where do employees park, etc.) and pass out any paperwork employees need to complete (like benefits enrollment). Orienting employees to the company, their new environment, and their jobs takes more than a couple hours, a script, and a PowerPoint deck. Ideally, it’s a months-long process involving a number of players from the new hire’s supervisor to executive leadership, along with exposure to materials that introduce the new-hire to the company narrative and other need-to-know information. Some of the best new-hire orientations also treat an incoming class of employees as a cohort that can support one other and ask questions of each other they might be uncomfortable asking a longer-term employee (e.g., “Does anybody know if there’s a policy about leaving work early for a child’s piano recital or little league game?”).

One company puts employees through a “Zero Month” orientation, which includes three week-long modules addressing culture (through a series of conversations with the company’s founders and key managers), role, and product. (While I don’t address it in this series, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of employee literacy around the company, its products, and its marketplace.) An article detailing this company’s orientation process reports that employees come out of the program saying, “I can’t believe I’m part of an organization in which culture is that important.” The company’s retention rate is better than 90%; customer retention is over 95%.

While HR is universally responsible for new-hire orientation, employee communicators should insinuate themselves into the process.

Emphasizing Employees

Too many companies think treating their employees well means foosball tables in the workplace and on-site massages. I have nothing against either of these, but by themselves, they don’t produce the kind of culture that delivers strong bottom-line business results. (I worked for a company that had tennis courts and a gym on the premises, yet most employees in this volatile organization would have traded them in a heartbeat for a little increased job security.)

You could fill a library with the volumes that have been written on how companies should treat employees. Ultimately, it comes down to focusing on respect, aligning actions and practices with expectations, and avoiding superficiality. 

Focus on respect

I once heard a CEO say that ascension to that office comes complete with its own “stupid ray.” When you sit in the CEOs chair, the stupid ray is aimed right at your head, he said, convincing you that you’re the smartest guy in the room and that the lower an employee is on the org chart, the less capable he is of understanding complex business issues or taking bad news.

Another CEO said during a speech that he makes it a point to walk the floor of a production facility every week, talking to the employees who labor at lower-paid production tasks. These conversations reminded him that these employees had lives away from work that involved a range of impressive activities. One might be the treasurer of a local Kiwanis club, another helps a spouse manage a home-based business, another is a scoutmaster, another rebuilds classic cars. If he went a week without visiting frontline production workers, he found himself slipping back into the old “they can’t understand” mindset.

I recently read an article about why employees ever leak proprietary information from Facebook despite the fact that Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg are incredibly transparent with staff about nearly everything. According to the article, it’s all about peer pressure. Nobody leaks because everyone knows if they do, Zuck and Sandberg will stopsharing. That’s a far cry from the CEO I met who spent most of the year telling employees everything was fine before announcing budget cuts every October. If he shared the real situation with them, he said, it would be leaked to industry blogs in minutes. He didn’t trust his staff. In return, they didn’t trust him.

As counselors, communicators need to help leaders be authentic, candid, and transparent with employees. When one of my former employers named a new president, one of the first things I did was arrange for him to visit frontline staff in their work areas. He was genuinely nervous going to his first meeting with a group of blue-collar craftsmen (“They’re going to eat me alive,” he worried), but he came out energized and excited, asking how soon he could do it again.

We also need to make sure employees at all levels get relevant news and information, not one-size-fits-all content. Communicators should go out of their way to report on instances of leaders and managers demonstrating their respect for employees.

The rest of this list flows directly from treating employees with respect.

Keep employees in the loop

It’s not just a matter of sharing bad news. Employees should never be surprised by bad news. Communicators can avoid surprising employees with bad news by keeping them informed about the state of the business, the industry, and the marketplace. As I noted above, communicators should help leaders avoid making the mistake of thinking employees can’t grasp the issues the C-suite grapples with. It’s also incumbent on communicators to share this information in digestible ways, keeping in mind that staying informed isn’t in their job descriptions. We have to make that content relevant, interesting, and even entertaining.

Recognize the right behaviors

If culture is “the way things are done around here,” then recognizing employees who embrace behaviors consistent with the culture leaders want is a vital means of letting everyone else know that these are the behaviors that are rewarded. While formal recognition programs are often run out of HR, getting the word out in a way that sends this message is a communication task.

Report on employees who reflect the desired culture

Beyond recognition, telling the tales of employees who have taken advantage of the best parts of your culture can let others know that they can take advantage of the same opportunities. One characteristic of many great cultures, for example, is letting employees use their knowledge and skills on the job. Sharing the tale of an employee who was able to achieve something special on her department’s behalf based on a skill she had acquired elsewhere that wasn’t directly related to her work can send tacit permission to others who may feel that their capabilities aren’t being used as well as they might.

This AT&T employee was homeless when he was given a jobSimilarly, tell the stories of employees who have done something that reflects the company’s values. I read an AT&T story about a store manager who hired a homeless man, George Robey (pictured at right), who wandered into a store and asked for a job. “I couldn’t believe it when [the manager] said yes,” Robey said. “It was amazing to not get judged.” He went on to advance through the ranks to become a national account executive and then a store manager. Clearly, by telling this story, AT&T is proclaiming that being judgmental isn’t part of the way things are doing around there.

The article ends with this quote from Robey: “I’m so humbled by my experience, but the biggest thing is I want people to see how great this company is. I’ll never leave AT&T. The brand is completely built into me. There’s nothing that could make me quit. I owe this company everything.”

AT&T even has a podcast series, “Life at AT&T, that celebrates employees. It’s used not only as a recognition tool for staff but as a recruiting tool since it shines a light on the employer brand.

In another story that made the news, a Lowe’s employee who needed a kidney got one—from a co-worker in another state. That’s a company that fosters a sense of community.

Who wouldn’t be proud to work for companies with cultures like these?

Involve employees in big activities

Launching a new product? Make employees part of the launch plan. Without employees, there would be no product to launch, and celebrating their involvement in the product’s introduction to the marketplace sends the message that their role is valued.

Foosball at workThere is, of course, more that employee communicators can do to help instill the treatment of employees into the culture, much of which is based on an organization’s specific values, practices, and the environment they create for employees (including attention to safety, being welcoming to a diverse employee population, and even the physical work environment itself. And yes, that might even include foosball tables and on-site massages. (I’ll talk about place, the last of the culture elements on my list, in the next installment of this series.)

Align Practices and Actions with Expectations

If it is an employee communicator’s job to be a cheerleader for the culture, it is equally important to be realistic. Too often, companies conflate their aspirations with the culture, insisting that the way they want to be is the way they are.

Culture change takes time and hard work. If the culture is hierarchical and homogeneous, proclaiming the desired culture empowers employees and celebrates diversity doesn’t make it so. Change communicators know the importance of communicating plans and milestones, but it can be dangerous to say “we celebrate diversity” when employees are reporting harassment at a steady clip (or citing it in exit interviews as a reason for leaving).

As realists, employee communicators understand what the culture is and their role in changing it. They need to be equally adept at connecting the dots for employees between changes in practices and policies enacted to effect that change.

Avoid Superficiality

Did I mention foosball tables and on-site massages? In some cultures, these are genuine reflections of an employee-focused culture. In others, it’s a band-aid approach to dealing with bigger issues. CEOs are inclined to respond to poor engagement scores by telling HR to start a wellness program. There’s nothing wrong with a wellness program, and it could improve job satisfaction, but that’s not the same thing as engagement. It’s a superficial fix to a deeper problem.


Whether an employee retires or leaves for other reasons, it usually signals a complete severing of ties with the organization. Retirees may continue to receive pension checks and retiree medical benefits, but not much else. (This can be particularly hard on retirees, who spent a considerable portion of their lives at the company; their co-workers were also their community. To be suddenly cut off from that community can have tangible effects on a retiree’s physical and mental health.)

In the best companies, the employee journey includes post-employment. Former employees can still be ambassadors for the organization and advocates for its positions on issues. Since 85% of the knowledge in an organization is tacit, the knowledge contained in an employee’s head walks out the door when she leaves the organization. Maintaining a connection can lead to post-employment knowledge sharing. Retirees can take on new roles, from mentors for new-hires to docents at company facilities. A former employee may decide to return, a process eased if the relationship still exists.

Establishing communication channels for former employees should be a consideration for any employee communicator.

Ultimately, reinforcing what a company does to let employees know they’re valued, ensuring awareness of company benefits and programs, and helping employees see their role in the company’s success will contribute mightily to the kind of culture that builds trust inside the organization and out.

Employee communicators: How do you communicate the employee component of your company’s culture?

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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